The truth about hairballs

Posted: Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Hacking up hairballs is a cat's salute to spring. As the weather warms up, cats shed their winter coats. Clean creatures that they are, they devote many extra hours to grooming out the loose hair. The result is a spiffy looking coat and, very likely, a yucky byproduct on the floor.

Hairballs are cigar shaped masses of hair and half-digested food. Finding one beneath your bare foot is a memorable experience.

Fortunately, you can do a lot to prevent hairballs with a brush or comb. All the cat has to work with is its teeth and raspy tongue. The tongue's surface is covered with tiny barbs called papillae. Because they point backward, toward the throat, Fluffy ends up with a mouthful of fur that is caught in the barbs and darned near impossible to spit out. So what's a cat to do? She swallows it.

Hair is largely indigestible, so it is not dissolved in felis. Most of it goes through the cat and ends up in the litter box. But when there's a lot of hair coming through, some collects in the stomach, forming a hard, dense ball.

That causes indigestion. Fluffy may bypass the food bowl and go looking for grass to eat. Indoor cats that have no grass handy may head for the house plants. Greens are loaded with nutrients good for cats. They also make the cat throw up the hairball. This is a natural process, nothing to worry about as long as it is just an occasional thing.

If it happens often, you might want to dab a bit of Vaseline on your cat's front paw. The cat will lick it off and the Vaseline goes down to meet the next prospective hairball, encouraging it to go down and out instead of up. Pet stores sell tubes of goo made especially for this purpose that are more palatable than just plain petroleum jelly. I had a cat who'd come running to lick a malt-flavored lubricant off my fingertip.

A new alternative is "hairball formula" dry cat food. It contains extra fiber that helps collect hair and escort it through the cat's digestive tract. Either the lubricant or the hairball formula cat food can be an older cat's best friend. Old-timers are more likely to get plugged up as hair accumulates in the intestine.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine took her old cat to the vet because the old girl (the cat, not my friend) had stopped eating, was losing weight and just lying around without showing her usual affection and interest in life. The diagnosis: hairball-caused constipation. All it took to get her back to normal was a couple of dabs of Vaseline.

Hairballs happen even if Fluffy isn't fluffy. Short haired cats shed, too. Regardless of hair length, a cat has up to 200 hairs per square millimeter of skin. No wonder a typical cat spends one-third of its waking hours grooming.

And if you have just started thinking it might be nice to have one of those hairless cats - not truly hairless but covered with peach fuzz - it's true that they neither shed nor gift you with hairballs. Instead, you get oily spots where they sleep.

• Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She volunteers at the Gastineau Humane Society.

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